The Society's seal and three photographs

African Lives in Northern England

Picture credit; taken from Philip Spence, Robert & Mary Spence of North Shields, Reid and Co., in Newcastle (1939) used with permission from Breaking Chains Exhibition, Old Low Lights. There are copies of this book in North Tyneside Libraries and the Lit and Phil, Newcastle.

Memorial stone on back page; photo taken by Mile Scott, Old Low Light volunteer

Mary Ann Macham was the daughter of a slaveowner in Virginia, and an enslaved woman. At the age of 12 she was sold by her father to another slaveowner, and treated with much cruelty. As explained by Sean Creighton, she

arrived in North Shields via Grimsby in 1831, having escaped from slavery.... She was baptised in the North Shields Baptist Church. She became servant to various members of the Spence family until she married a local man, James Blyth, in 1841 when she was aged about 35. They lived in various houses on Howard Street. He was a ropemaker, then a banker’s porter (possibly for the Spence family’s bank). They appear not to have had any children. By 1881 aged 79 she was a widow living in Nelson Street, North Shields. In 1891 she was living with what appear to be relatives of James's in South Benwell. She died in 1893 and was buried in Preston Cemetery.

The book by Philip Spence, noted above, includes a narrative by Mary Ann herself of her life in Virginia and her escape across the Atlantic, given many decades later when she was an elderly lady. Follow this link to read her story. (Our thanks to the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, for scanning their copy).

Mary Ann seems to have been the only enslaved woman who managed to escape to Britain by stowing away on a ship, but there were other women who were brought to London and there managed to achieve their freedom. One was Mary Prince, born in Bermuda, was brought to London in 1828 and was able to get in touch with the Anti-Slavery Society.  She wrote an autobiography which was published in 1831. It sold very well, and was one of the factors in the strength of the development of Ladies' Anti-Slavery Associations. In 1833 nearly 6,000 women's signatures were collected on an anti-slavery petition in Newcastle and Gateshead, part of a national effort which collected 187,000 women's signatures altogether.

No record of Mary Ann taking any public part in the agitation has been traced. This might be because she was considered disqualified from public speaking because she was a young woman, or because her experience was of America, and not the Caribbean, so that the anti-abolitionists would have been able to argue it was irrelevant. At least, however, in Quaker and anti-slavery circles her existence would have been known about, and probably helped to strengthen the cause. It is also very possible that she took part in private, un-minuted meetings of the Ladies' Associations. The fact that she did not begin to earn her living as a servant until 2 1/2 years after her arrival on Tyneside does suggest that she had other occupations up untl then. The timing of this would fit with the final passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, which received the Royal Assent in August 1833.

Mary Ann's life has been researched by volunteers at the Old Low Light centre in North Shields, with the help of John Spence High School and Historic England. Breaking Chains, an exhibition about her, was held there in Autumn 2019. The team of volunteers who put together the exhibition,won the 2020 Marsh Trust Regional Award for the north east, for volunteers in Museum Learning.  The Old Low Lights has a short video about the exhibition on its YouTube site.

As there was no memorial stone to her in Preston Cemetery, a crowd-funding campaign raised the money for one. It was dedicated and installed in front of her husband's gravestone, in March 2020.

 

Cases where slaveowners treat their own children, or the enslaved mothers of their children, simply as 'property' are not at all uncommon. One item in our archives is a deed (SANT/DEE/5/1) between Jacob Graham and Mary Heward and her husband, for the sale of enslaved people in Jamaica, dated 1815. Mary Heward was the daughter of Graham and an enslaved woman from his plantation, Statira. Graham manumitted (freed) and baptised seven of his children by two women, Eve (who pre-deceased Graham) and Statira. But he did not free Statira, but 'left' her to one of his children in his will. Follow this link to see an image of the deed. Thanks to Jo March of Northumberland Archives, who has been researching this.

References

Mary Ann's story is in Robert & Mary Spence of North Shields, Philip Spence, (Reid and Co., 1939) There are copies of this book in North Tyneside Libraries and the Lit and Phil, Newcastle. Follow this link to see a digital copy of this. Our thanks to the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, for scanning their copy and allowing to use it.

The History of Mary Prince, ed Sarah Salih, was republished by Penguin Classics in 2000. Mary Prince also has a Wikipedia page.

The Interest, by Michael Taylor (Bodley Head, 2020) summarises part of Mary Prince's book, and also discusses the role of the Ladies' Committee of the Anti-Slavery Society.

In the future, don’t forget your past